Thomas Gainsborough: Artist of a Changing World

Michael Rosenthal and Martin Myrone look beyond the traditional view of Gainsborough and argue for a view of the painter beyond that of society portraitist, as a modernist responding to the broader themes of his times.

Thomas Gainsborough is one of Britain’s best-loved artists. His portraits appear to conjure up a lost world of Georgian elegance and his landscapes to embody an enduring vision of the English countryside as rural idyll. If we were to believe Gainsborough, as he presented himself in his letters, these images were created by an unlearned and straightforward character, a notion that has persisted in the literature on the artist. The complex ironies and subtleties of his art (or, indeed, of his letters) have been under-appreciated, and consequently the relationship between his imagery and the broader history of his age little considered. But Gainsborough’s art can be seen as expressing, commenting on and in some respects challenging the wider cultural changes of the time.

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